Thursday, December 1, 2011

For Credit: What's New with Vathek?

Madame de Pompadour as a Sultana (1752)
If you think back to the beginning of this class and the first few novels we read, one of the challenges was figuring out how to read a C18 novel. We talked about how these were novels that said what they meant--we weren't supposed to read around an unreliable narrator, discern deep hidden truths buried in apparently innocuous stories, brace ourselves for surprise endings, or expect entertainment designed for our tastes.

By 1786, the rules were starting to change (and would eventually morph into the familiar patterns that you had to shed in order to grapple productively with C18 fiction). The interpretive skills, specific to C18 literature, that you have acquired and honed in this course are not as useful for understanding Vathek as they were for the other things that we've read.

In a world that expected fiction to "delight and instruct," Vathek does neither. If it "delights," it also confronts you with the spectacle of violence, gore, and ruthlessness. If it "instructs," it does so in a very roundabout manner: its surface lessons are too trite (avoid eternal damnation!) or bizarre (heaven is an eternity of sexless immaturity!) to be useful.

How do the tools that you bring to bear on more modern literary texts help you in making sense of Vathek?

What would have have liked to say in class today but didn't have the opportunity to?

What would you like to add to today's discussion?

Final thoughts on Vathek?

Deadline: Saturday midnight.


  1. As for as it providing some instructions I would agree that the lessons are indeed trite. It is a very gory work with little in the way of some deep meaningful lessons. However, in this way it is like many novels that we see today. There are virtually an endless supply of sci-fi, fantasy, and graphically vivid romance novels out there. Few of these books offer anything in the way of legitimate moral instruction. What they do offer is entertainment, and I would argue that that is what one sees start to come to being through the 18c. Vathek is a work of Gothic literature and is successful for it entertainment value. Gothic novels such is the former and the castle of otranto offer a very specialized form of entertainment, just as the genres we see today do. Such books are able to be a success starting in this time because the amount of literate and ready readers is much much more pronounced than it was even 100 years before.

  2. Whether Vathek was intended to provide moralizing instruction or not, that certainly doesn't seem to have been the primary reason for Beckford to have written it. There was already a surfeit of explicitly moralizing novels available, so I think that he decided to write something that would appeal more to people like himself: entitled, hedonistic party boys that wanted to be entertained in new and exotic fashions by wildly imaginative and exciting stories of the wondrous and terrible, rather than "delighted and instructed" by their chosen literary pursuits.

  3. In terms of modern literary tools, I believe that working with books that are somewhat purposeless is a more common act today than in the 18th century. To some extent, I believe that fiction is sill designed to instruct and moralize, but deals with the morally ambiguous as an acceptable option in today's society. Having this overall experience in learning tolerance from a book's character helped me working with Vathek because I'm more used to realizing the value of a character who serves to highlight what is morally right or wrong without actually having to embody these qualities.

  4. I think the most interesting thing about Vathek is we really can't get a bead on what exactly Beckford was attempting to do. It could be construed in numerous ways and I think that's probably part of the reason why it was so popular. Because it has different ways of being read (mainly moralistic and not), it most likely drew a lot of readers in from both sides.

    While reading Vathek I just thought it was the weirdest, craziest book ever. I've never read a book like Vathek and it was definitely a challenge to get through at some points. I can see how readers found Vathek entertaining because they had probably never read anything like it before.

  5. Vathek was such an interesting book. I'm saying interesting because I cannot think of a better fit word. It showcased different acts of evil and made it seem as if it weren't a big deal. At the end, Vathek ends up in hell - yet until that point, his evil acts don't seem like a big deal. The way Beckford wrote this, made it a challenge for me to read through the text. At parts, I thought his sarcasm was making "fun" of this evil acts, but they actually were happening.

  6. What keeps coming up in this discussion is the fact that Vathek is something "new". I agree and I think that this novel is the perfect example of an author's constant struggle to create something innovative and new. Some of the most popular works from this time are far simpler in terms of plot and setting (no disrespect to what we've read, of course) and deals primarily with moral instruction. I think Beckford's take on the gothic novel is his reaction to this genre that simply acts as a conduct manual or has some grand sweeping take on humanity. Vathek, like you suggest, arguably does neither (or at least neither are its claim to fame, in my opinion). The manner in which Vathek stands out is its ability to surprise the reader, to give them something they have never experienced before. With Vathek, we are brought out of the realm of domestic and social Europe and its customs and transported into a simultaneously dark and extravagant world in which the enjoyment comes from reading about people doing the wrong thing. It really flips conventions about eighteenth century literature on their heads. And really, I think that's the way many writers approach literature today. The books we really talk about and celebrate today are the ones that do something different (I have David Foster Wallace in mind when I write this). I guess with the enormous amount of work that has been published thus far, it's important to stand out somehow!

  7. I think it's very interesting that Beckford didn't want Vathek published when it was. It makes me wonder both why he wrote it, and what he would have changed before publication had he been given the chance. Vathek is definitely the stand-out book from this semester; one that is hard to compare to the other domestic, marriage, and seduction novels we've read. Because of that, I think that reading Vathek with a different mind set, one that draws on contemporary novels as a basis for comparison and understanding, is very helpful. Thinking of Beckford's intention as something other than moralizing or a social conduct book really opens up the story, and makes it a lot easier to enjoy. I know when I was reading it over break and trying to figure out where it stood within the realm of 18th century fiction, I was extremely frustrated at points because it just didn't make a whole lot of sense with what we've learned this semester.

  8. When we discussed the Genius in class, I was thinking that he could have represented the religion that we were supposed to follow. Since the novel commented on the way that the East was perceived, maybe the Genius could have represented Vathek's way to redemption, and lead him to the right religion.

  9. I find it so intersting that a novel like Vathek is not more popular in our time. I feel like as we discussed, any of the odern literary techniques can be applied while reading this book. The nature of this book to me reminds me of Chris Angel and his magical stimulations. I feel as though in a way the charcter of Vathek is being blind-sided by this realm of magic and supernaturals that contribute to his personality in the novel. I think that it plays a huge role in the way he acts.

    I definetely do agree with the others that at some points in the novel it was a bit challenging to get through due to the unique dimensions present randomly thorughout but it was something that could be worked through.

  10. I think part of what makes Vathek so "delightful" is the fact that it does confront the readers with all of the gore, violence and excess. I found this novel to be actually somewhat refreshing read after having read so many stories this semester about virtue and love. This being said, I think that Vathek was an excellent way to end the semester-- while on the surface it is a very entertaining story about a supernatural world, with the use of some interpretive skills a reader is able to get more of a moral meaning. I keep coming back to the attendance question on Thursday, about whether or not Vathek's refusal of redemption from the Genius was a wise move or stupid on the part of Vathek. I think that Vathek's refusal could possibly be part of the moral of the story--that at a certain point we simply have to live with our choices and realize that we cannot undo what has been done, some actions simply cannot be forgiven.

  11. I have to disagree with Krista. I did not like Vathek at all. I found it to be extremely racist in its portrayal of the oriental. It describes the visitor as a monster and later as a Indian. I think this says a lot about race in this time period. People of color are monsters in the minds of Europeans. I think that we need to be more critical of this novel for it assumes a lot about race. The truly despicable characters seem to be people of color and I find this incredibly troubling.

    I do see the value of reading novel that was vastly different from the other novels in this course, but I think Tristram Shandy was more revolutionary in my mind.